March 12, 2019
An Exposition of Expectations
Mystery, drama and tragedy are all very common, hallmark themes of the typical gothic novels of old. Jane Austen, who completely understood the flow and tendencies of such stories, sought to expose these clichés in her novel, Northanger Abbey. She employs numerous themes of gothic stories, with the intention of mocking them, and their readers. She uses mystery in prelusion, enticing language, and conspiracy. The story’s protagonist, Catherine, is a representation of the genre’s fanbase. Austen’s novel is a blatantly satirical exposition of the romanticising gothic novel connoisseur’s of her day, because it tells a very real, and ultimately underwhelming story that only proves how one’s imagination can cause unrealistic expectations.
The very title of Northanger Abbey provides a huge clue, a part of Austen’s message. Before arriving at the estate, the stories central characters, Catherine and Henry, have an intense discussion concerning it, as it is his family’s estate, and they are the Tilney’s. Catherine has been invited to stay with them for a time. In their conversing, he tells her an utterly dramatic story of her first night in the Abbey. Throughout the book Catherine’s character is shown to be extremely naive, imaginative, and stupidly unaware. As Henry describes his family’s abode, he purposely tells her a narrative of enthralling and enticing description, which reeks of gothic imagery. Needless to say, she is immediately swayed, as her excitement builds in anticipation of perhaps getting her very own gothic adventure during her stay. In his talk, Henry asks her, “...are you prepared to encounter all the horrors that a building such as ‘what one reads about’ may produce? Have you a stout heart? Nerves fit for sliding panels and tapestry?” (Austen, 148). He goes on to continue describing the layout, using terms such as, “dimly lit,” and “unconquerable horror,” (148). To all of this she responds, “Oh! Mr. Tilney, how frightful! This is just like a book!” (149). She buys what he sells, because she wants to. Interestingly enough, Henry is simply teasing. Upon arriving at the Abbey, Catherine is rather unimpressed and disappointed in how very un-gothic the estate is, which goes to show that the romanticizing reader is first fooled with prelusion. The wordage that Henry utilizes is the key.
Diction is most definitely the very essence of classic gothic literature. It creates the atmosphere of darkness, despair, fear, and/or intrigue in such storytelling. Austen’s choice of words in Northanger Abbey is no exception, as one could already tell from Henry’s dialogue concerning the estate. But such language is used throughout the story, whether in conversation or narration. In the telling of Catherine’s actual first night in the Abbey, Austen goes above and beyond. First, the mood is kicked off as she tells, “The night was stormy; the wind had been rising at intervals the whole afternoon; and by the time the party broke up, it blew and rained violently.” (156). In another line, concerning the erie weather, she says, “It could be nothing but the violence of the wind penetrating through the divisions of the shutters;” (157). Catherine’s imagination, once again, is getting the best of her, as she puts herself in a place of danger and dread when she is perfectly safe and secure. The narration of that night is meant to portray the drama and the extremity of her inner dialogue and thought processing. The overly gothic situation is of her own creation.
As long as she only allows her imagination to tell a story of her, an isolated girl in a gothic mansion, Catherine would be fine, perhaps just a little paranoid. However, she builds up the gothic ideas in her head until she creates an actual conspiracy concerning General Tilney and his missing wife. Of course one must realize that a conspiracy is another trademark of gothic stories. Catherine is told very little about Mrs. Tilney, as the General is quite reserved on the subject. In a first impression, one could mistake his peculiar tendencies and mannerisms as being strange, or even a little unsettling, but naturally, Catherine takes that to another level. She develops an entire backstory of him being an evil, wife murdering or wife enslaving, gothic villain. As she discusses Mrs. Tilney with Eleanor Tilney, Catherine presumes in her thoughts, “The General had certainly been an unkind husband,” later concluding that his features showed that he could not have, “...behaved well to her.” (169). Her fear of the constructed backstory gets to the point where she is caught by Henry as she explores Mrs. Tilney’s old rooms. Henry discovers her reasons for snooping in the rooms, to which he responds with anger and a telling of the correct story of his fathers’ response to his wife’s sudden death. Henry says to her, “His value of her was sincere; and if not permanently, he was truly afflicted by her death.” (186). Following this encounter, Catherine is extremely embarrassed and upset with herself, finally seeing how her imagination is foolish and expectant of what only really happens in dramatic stories, and not in everyday life, with everyday people.
The satire of Northanger Abbey exposes the romanticism of gothic novel readers, as they seek stories with absurd and cliché happenings where there is nothing of the sort to be found. Jane Austen utilizes common standards and themes of the genre, such as prelusion, diction, and conspiracy, to accomplish this. Ultimately, she tells a very ordinary story intending to defy gothic expectations, perhaps with the hope of giving her readers better taste in their novels.
Austen, Jane. Northanger Abbey. New York: Barnes & Noble Classics, 2005. Print.